No matter what the pitch looks like, South Africa will play three frontline quicks in Sri Lanka. This is at least what coach Ottis Gibson said, four days out from the first Test in Galle. He probably knows already that Sri Lankan surfaces have recently been so dusty that the home team straps three specialist spinners to the plow, often fielding only one seamer of their own. But no matter. “Our fast bowling has been the bedrock of our success for a long time, and I’m pretty sure we’ll continue with three fast bowlers,” Gibson said. When you look through the names on his roster – Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Vernon Philander – you can see why he takes this view.
And yet, it is not exactly going to be a fast-bowling party, is it? Sri Lanka have just drawn a seam-dominated Test series in the West Indies, but that was against a less accomplished side. Even if the likes of Shannon Gabriel unlocked a fearsome new gear against Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka’s own fast bowlers got to bowl at a West Indies top order that does not compare favourably with South Africa’s. They are probably not going to risk a pace v pace battle against South Africa, and instead will rely on the strategy that has brought them more success at home: a spin-heavy attack bowling on a low, crumbling surface.
The visitors expect this, and in the two-day practice match at the P Sara Oval have got a taster of the kind of track they will encounter in this series. On day one of this match, their quicks bowled 44 overs and managed only one wicket between them. What a drastic change it must be from the surfaces at home, in which they had most recently outgunned Australia’s seam attack. The quicks will have to dig deep here, Gibson said.
“Vernon and Dale have played here before, but it’s new for Lungi and for Rabada. It’s good for them to see what it’s going to be like when the Test match starts. It’s not going to be a place like Jo’burg where they see the ball flying through to the keeper. Sometimes it might bounce twice before it gets to the keeper. But then that’s when your strong character comes in, and you have to suck it up, run in, keep trying to hit the deck and be effective.”
Of the four quicks, only Steyn is proven in Sri Lanka, averaging an exceptional 24.71, with 21 wickets from four Tests on the island. Vernon Philander, on the other hand, averages more than 70 here, from two Tests in 2014. It is the two young quicks, though, that South Africa hope will challenge Sri Lanka most in this series, but neither has played Tests on the island. Each of Ngidi’s three Tests have come at home. The closest conditions to Sri Lanka Rabada has come across in his Test career, were in India, where he averages 55.50 over three Tests.
“The conditions might still shock the young quicks, but we make sure that when we’re talking cricket around the dressing room, and experiences from the guys who have been here before – we let them know early that this is what to expect,” Gibson said. “Don’t expect to see the ball flying through, but understand that you still have to keep running in and bowling at the top of your pace.
“The captain might use you in short spells so you can run in and go as hard as you can in those four overs, then go off to have a break and come back. The captain, I imagine, will do what he can to keep everybody fresh. I thought Lungi maintained his pace quite nicely in his three spells in the practice game. His pace was around the same mark all the time, and that was a really good sign for us.”
Rabada and Ngidi will undoubtedly look to Steyn for leadership in the series. After all, he had been South Africa’s match-winner in the last Galle Test South Africa played, in which he claimed a ten-wicket match haul. Having been beset by injury over the past two years, however, there have been some doubts over Steyn’s Test-match fitness in the approach to this tour. He was not quite at his best in his 12 overs in the practice match, conceding more than four runs an over, but he still appears assured of a place in the XI in Galle.
“I’m happy with where Dale is at, because he was just playing in England,” Gibson said. “He came into the practice match and he looked a little bit rusty, I’m not going to lie. But we’re talking about one of the best fast bowlers of the modern generation.
He knows what he needs to do to get himself up for a Test match. We’ve had a little chat already today about what he needs to do for the remainder of the days building up to the Test match. He’ll be good to go by the time the Galle Test comes around.”